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Word count: 2,701
Total word count: 60,775
The shock of death was cold and tight, like a lover's embrace dragging Nox beneath the ocean waves. One last time. The realization that the demon had slit him wide open was more shock and disappointment than actual pain. Killed by a demon. Just a demon, not anything special. He hadn't planned on Transcending. He hadn't thought about the cost. The world of the living faded away as he felt his body fall to the rough desert sands. The last thing he saw before he fainted from the shock was the demon's eyes staring down at him, knowingly.
They had wanted him to Transcend. At least he had been killed by a crafty demon. That made him feel a little better. As good as he could feel with his lifeblood pouring unchecked upon the ground.
A less experienced Transcender would not have been able to keep their grip on a dying body. Nox held on tight; his magic was stronger than most. Not that he'd ever tell them, of course. He slipped easily in to the cold embrace of death and closed his eyes tightly. He waited for the silence to overwhelm him—and then the screams. Without preparation, he was going to crash in to Transcendence without someone to watch over his dying body; and worse: he was going to fall like a shining star in the darkness. No blindfold to protect his sight, and no idea of where he may end up, it was all he could do to keep from falling past Transcendence to Final Death.
He had brushed too close this time. The chill he felt when the world surrounded him was colder than any winter night. When the screaming stop—he opened his eyes to the darkness.
Ice licked at his eyelashes and spread cold hands down his chest. The darkness shimmered and faded, revealing a desert full of star-filled sand. Miles in every direction, with an endless sky above. Far across the deserts of Transcendence, he saw the ghosts of The Burning City behind a dune. The memories of hundreds of demons, stumbling over each other to form some semblance of a city. Their attempt at humanity—stealing the memories of Transcenders and the innocents, and filling in the gaps in their own world.
Nox waited for a demon to find him. There was no entry to Transcendence without a cost. And this was an uninvited trip; Nox had nothing to offer and nothing to ask for, except to return to his own body. Well, he could think of a few things, if needed.
He didn't have to wait long.
Over the black sand dunes, kicking up stars in its wake, a demon ran towards him. This one was female; with smooth white skin, the body of a human woman with feathers where her hair would be. Long, graceful feathered wings spread from her shoulders and long, curved horns jutted from the sides of her head like a goat. Feathers fell around her shoulders, soft and silky. Every few steps, she lifted her decidedly human feet and glided across the sands. Nox knew better than to trust the physical appearance of demons; often, they could appear as humans, or memories, or the something straight from a nightmare. They wanted something, and were prepared to take whatever form was necessary to get it. This demon preferred flattery—and was, to Nox's memory—the most beautiful demon he had ever met.
The moment wasn't meant to last, however. Just as the beautiful demon crested the hill and descended towards Nox—Jaq barreled over the opposite dune, trailed by another demon.
Nox recognized the demon that followed behind Jaq, from the rooftop back in Jan'caro. So, he hadn't just imagined it. Jaq really did have a demon that followed him. Somehow, that did little to comfort Nox as the two raced towards him. The demon that followed Jaq slammed straight in to the other demon and the two went rolling in the sand, lost to Nox's view.
Jaq approached Nox, his bare feet leaving no foot prints in the black, glittering sand. There was no sound, no howling wind, nothing but the sounds of two demons struggling in the distance. A woman's scream pierced the emptiness of Transcendence, and Jaq's demon reappeared. Bright, red blood dripped from the demon's pale chest.
“Did you send that demon to kill me?” Nox asked, subconsciously running a hand across his chest, where he knew his physical body was bleeding out.
“Did I send the demon that cut you open? Yes. I didn't send her,” Jaq waved behind Nox, where the sounds of the woman's screams were fading and dying out. “I didn't have any other way to get your attention. I'll stitch you up when we get back. We're running out of time. Follow me.” Before Jaq had even finished his sentence, he was walking up the black sand dune. Nox struggled to keep up.
The demon followed behind Nox; he tried his best to ignore it. The demon was half man, half beast, with long wings the color of shadows and a red blindfold over his eyes. Nox felt the chill of Transcendence begin to sink in. He knew Jaq was right: they didn't have much time. His body was dying.
As soon as Jaq and Nox reached the top of the dune, Jaq stopped. He held up his arm to keep Nox from walking any further. Just as Nox opened his mouth to protest, movement caught his eye. Down in the shadows of the dune, the glittering lights he thought was the demon's version of sand—was, in fact, a churning pile of demons. Their black, slick bodies rolled and pushed, fighting for room on the desert floor.
“Are they sleeping?” Nox asked, glad he didn't have a stomach to worry about or it would have made him ill.
“They're waiting. They have the advantage of not having time.” Jaq pointed to the center of the pile. As he did, the demons seemed to withdraw from his touch. Beneath the snarling, bloodied mass was the BloodGate. The shimmering surface of the gate was nearly overrun by demons, and the strain on the structure was apparent. Every few moments, a harsh flash of light would erupt from the gate, scattering the demons in every direction.
“It's breaking, Nox. I can't leave.” Jaq lifted his arm, and as if his words had made it happen, a chain appeared. One end stretched through the sand behind Nox, where he knew it would be connected to the demon. The other—straight down the dune and now tied irreversibly to the BloodGate. A faint light shimmered from with Jaq's chest and vibrated down the line to the BloodGate.
“Right now, I'm all that's holding it together. If Ubel sends any more demons at the BloodGate—well, I can't stop them all.”
“Did you bring me here to show me this?” Nox asked. He watched as the demons smothered the chain, pulling Jaq a little closer to the BloodGate.
“I needed you to see what I'm dealing with, why I can't come back. Just in case Av'niel asks, you can tell him I wasn't lying.” Jaq pulled on the slack of his chain.
“Before you tell me anything else, Jaq. What is that?” Nox turned around and, as he had suspected, the demon stood behind him. Fresh red blood dripped down the demon's human chest, over tight muscles and endless scar marks. Jaq spoke behind him, and he sounded tired.
“My price, as a BloodGate Heir. Saddled with my own personal demon.”
The demon turned, craning a muscled neck to stare with his blindfold at Jaq. The demon's stitched mouth twitched and stretched in to what could only be called a smirk.
I had a name. Lost to this world. I was given one. A voice whispered against Nox's ear. A man's voice, and a woman's voice, in unison.
“You're going to have a headache when you wake up. Every time he does that.” Jaq said.
Nox felt blood drip down his jawline.
“I answered your question—well, he did—the attention hog.” Jaq waved dismissively at BloodBane. The demon shrugged, a single motion that sounded like breaking glass. “You've seen my problem. Now, let's get you a little closer to stopping it. We need to narrow down the hiding places for the BloodGate Heir in the Burning City. Whatever price the demon wants, I'll pay it.”
“What demon?” Nox asked.
In a heart beat, or a blink of an eye—BloodBane appeared beside Jaq. Only the slight rattle of chains gave the movement away, as if he hadn't been standing there the entire time. Nox felt the chill in his body fade away and was replaced by something warm, and gentle. He felt two arms slip around his shoulders and pull him backwards. He didn't struggle; he wasn't falling, he was flying, held in the embrace of a demon. It was intoxicating, and suffocating, and warm. He never wanted to leave.
“Nox, seriously. We don't have all day.” Jaq cleared his throat. Nox opened his eyes. He was laying on the desert sand with his head in the lap of a woman, feathered wings draped over him like the leaves of a tree. Warm, red blood spread across her chest and dripped down her stomach. Claw marks—from where BloodBane had attacked her earlier. As Nox watched, the wounds closed and a string of light stitched closed her wounds. The blood soaked in to her pale skin.
“Demons,” Nox sighed. “How long did I lay there?” Nox asked, struggling to sit up. The woman released her grip with a sigh.
“She nearly killed you.” Jaq said and crossed his arms over his chest. The demon woman smiled, and she helped Nox stand back up.
“This one is awfully... helpful. Are you sure she's going to ask for anything?” Nox asked. His skin felt warm where the demon had touched him. At Nox's words, the woman turned to stare at Jaq. Her pale, shimmering eyes narrowed.
“This one knows me.” Jaq said with a shrug. “She's usually first in line to kill me, and first in line to help. I've never seen her give anything for free.” The woman approached Jaq with arms open. He would have sighed, but instead surrendered himself to her embrace. She wrapped her wings around him tightly and pulled him close to her chest. All Nox could hear was muffled curses until she released him.
Jaq pushed her away, hard enough that she skipped across the desert sand and floated backwards. She looked angry, eyes darting from Jaq to BloodBane, back to Nox. The demon screamed, a sound that Nox would remember for a very long time, and flew off in to the desert.
“She looked angry. What did she ask for?” Nox asked. Jaq shook his head.
“She wanted you.” Jaq arched an eyebrow.
“You did say you'd give her whatever she wanted--” Nox said with raised eyebrows.
“I can't give her a heart. I told her she'll have to wait, or settle for someone else. Looks like she'll wait..”
The thought made Nox feel cold again. Could Jaq have just sworn Nox to the company of a demon? Was that even possible? Nox had been asked for many things by demons; some he could remember, some he couldn't. Some he didn't want to remember. Usually they were small things. A memory from his childhood, to change the color of his eyes, to visit a place and remember. He had never been asked to stay.
“She'll be back soon and she won't stay long. Do you still have that key I gave you?”
Nox reached to his neck and, for the first time, wondered if he was actually wearing anything. He had Transcended so fast and with such desperation, sometimes the magic didn't always carry over. He was relieved when he felt the inside of his vest and the cold skeleton key that rested in his pocket. He handed it to Jaq. The key burned his hand as he let it go.
Jaq held out the key and waited. Nox watched the surrounding desert, still wary of other demons that may have been alerted to their presence. The only demon that returned was the woman, floating gracefully through the darkness on soundless wings. She hovered in the air before Jaq and reached out with delicate, clawed hands. Her touch was soft, gentle, knowing; she cupped her hands over Jaq's and he dropped the key.
As it touched her hands, she screamed again, and a bright flash of light erupted. Nox felt himself falling backwards, Jaq stepped back but his chains held him firmly in place. BloodBane didn't seem to notice. When Nox was finally able to see—the woman's clawed hands were bloodied where the key rested. She turned her pale eyes towards Jaq, and Nox heard a voice again in his mind.
This is a BloodGate Key. A voice, a mix of ocean waves and wind chimes but decidedly female. What you ask of me will require payment. Not this time, Jaq Lo'ren. She craned her slender neck to the side as she studied the old Transcender. She gripped the key tightly between her clawed fingers.
“I'll repay you,” Jaq said. His voice shook, and Nox felt dampness on his cheeks. The demon's voice made him cry. He scrubbed the dampness away.
I will show you the way. She turned and looked at Nox. The price is his to pay, Nox'tellan. But I will keep my memory of you. If you need me, remember. And I will remember you.
Her words left Nox aching, not wanting to let her go. He strained to hear her voice just once more, but she didn't say another word. Somehow, although the voice wasn't entirely human, there was a quality about it that made him want to remember.
From the darkness shimmered an image—like a faded memory, unstable and dark around the edges.
This is a memory. From demon, or trespasser, I do not know.
“Trespasser?” Nox asked.
“She means Transcender. Anyone not a demon.”
The image shimmered, and began to move. The movement was quick and jumpy, as if through the eyes of a child. There were no colors in the memory; just the crowded streets of a moonlit Jan'caran marketplace. Nox recognized the hanging cloth used to cover the various shopping stalls, and all the burning lamps and torches that lit up the walls and pathways. Everyone else in the memory was faceless; their features burned away by time. All except one.
“There she is.” Jaq whispered.
Nox watched as the memory blinked, then approached the only woman with any features. She was young, Jan'caran, with dark skin. Her eyes glowed a slight color of gold—the mark of Jan'caran royalty, someone with magic in their blood. Her long, dark hair was braided with orange flowers from the desert. She tried to blend in, but the body guard that stood behind her—Jaq seemed interested in the man—told those around her she was anything but.
“You're telling me that the person—the woman—that Ubel is after. Is a member of the Royal House? When was this memory from? Does Ubel already know?” Nox asked. The woman looked up from the memory, her golden eyes stared directly at Nox. Then, the image was gone.
“This was an earlier memory.” Jaq said. The demon nodded.
“How do you know?”
“The man guarding her—even without his face, without seeing anything beyond that. It was Tarik. Av'niel's nephew. He must have discovered who the BloodGate Heir was and was caught.”
“Then they may both already be dead.” Nox felt his skin begin to prickle from the cold.
No. The BloodGate Heir lives. But her life is in danger, Nox'tellan. You must hurry. Use the key, you know her face; it will guide you towards her.
Nox didn't what to know what that had just cost him.
Jaq drew his blood dagger from his belt. He took a step towards Nox.
“You know who you're looking for. Take the key—find her, Nox. Before Ubel does.”
Before Nox could answer—Jaq had slit his throat.
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